Wednesday, August 05, 2015

The Fantasia Daily 2015.20 (2 August 2015): Khalil Gibran's The Prophet, Outer Limits of Animation, Experimenter, Ninja the Monster, and They Look Like People

I think this is about where I start falling way behind every year, for a number of reasons from these short programs taking an undue amount of time to write up to just having written a relatively large number of words for twenty days straight along with seeing a bunch of movies and pumping my body through of more less-than-ideal foodstuffs than usual. I don't really feel burnt out on the festival, even if I won't mind going home, but at some point, the writing just slows down. I think there are also more early shows at this point, and with the tablet busted...



It's time for the annual "Jay tries to match people to names despite not catching much of the French in the introduction" game! Left to right, I believe we're talking to:

1. Annie Amaya, who directed "Office Paint" and introduced herself in English,
2. Maude D'Amboise-Courcelles, who directed "Noir Manhattan" and mentioned un detectif in her introduction,
3. Alvaro Marinho, perhaps
4. Gabrielle Le Blanc? I caught very little of what she said.
5. Max Woodward, who directed "A Free Lunch" and introduced himself in English.
6. Kelly Harpes?

The lesson, as always, is that I really need to bone up on my French before coming here next year, because I feel terrible wanting to give these talented local animators their due among all the other things looking for their due but only being able to do so halfway.



The next Q&A of the day had Ken Ochiai, director of Ninja the Monster and the terrific Uzumasa Limelight from a couple years ago, giving a remarkably candid Q&A. That doesn't mean it was all about "I know I made a movie that isn't very good and here's how things turned out that way", more that he got into details about the making of the movie that remind you that making things intended to be commercial, there are things not mentioned. I'm not sure how thrilled his producers would be at him describing how this was actually shot a couple years ago and two years were spent on the FX - because instead of hiring a special effects house, they farmed it out to students at a VFX school who would work for free, and were really starting from scratch, many having never touched the software they were using before. They did a fairly good job, and it's probably a more common practice than one might think, but it's kind of not cool.

He also mentioned that it was a project initiated by a new "Blue Line" imprint of Japan's Shokichu studio which was mostly focused producing films for international audiences, with the irony being that if you want to make a ninja or samurai film these days, that's probably the best way to do it, because Japanese audiences generally don't go for that in large numbers unless it's an adaptation of a popular manga (and before you tut-tut, Americans, how many big-budget westerns are we cranking out these days?). They started with little more than a title - and Ochiai, who spent 15 years when younger in Los Angeles and admits to feeling a little bit like a foreigner whether in North America or Japan, did argue the grammar and punctuation with the studio bosses - and shot for ten days around Kyoto. I kind of wonder if it was one of the studios that used to crank out samurai pictures like a factory mentioned in Uzumasa Limelight. Some fun low-budget independent filmmaking talk there - when asked about the locations, he said that in some cases, they would be shooting in the same bamboo forest just outside of Kyoto, but pointing the camera one direction for mountains and the other for water, making it look like they'd traveled farther.

He also talked about how, when he cast Dean Fujioka and Aoi Morikawa, they were rather less well-known, with Fujioka having mostly worked in Taiwan and Morikawa (I think) not yet having done The World of Kanako or Fatal Frame. Interestingly, while mentioning Fujioka's work, I don't think he brought up The Pinkertons, a Canadian mystery series set in post-Civil War Kansas City which is in part funded by Japanese broadcasters, a kind of genuine oddity which might have been applauded for being Canadian.



Last visitors of the day were actors MacLeod Andrews & Margaret Ying Drake and writer/director/many other things Perry Blackshear of They Look Like People, and yes, that's the best picture you're getting from this angle.

Another really fun one, both for their making movies with nothing stories (it was shot in the director's apartment, and they basically forced themselves to get something done by booking tickets before they had a script) and for how this was their first festival with a genre focus - the film has been good enough to more mainstream-oriented fests, so when they name-dropped Absentia during Q&As there, people would just sort of look at them blankly, while at Fantasia it was "oh, yeah, that played here in this room!" Well, they also got a good response at the Brattle in Boston (mentioning them by name) in part because IFFBoston teamed with BUFF for the presentation, so it was a bit more of a horror-loving audience.

SPOILERS!

I also really liked how, when asked about alternate endings, they talked about how when you're doing something like this, you've always got the "gotcha!" ending in mind or the nasty one, but that wasn't really what this movie was about, and how sticking that on may be exciting and kind of satisfying to the gorehounds who were potentially a big part of their audience, it wouldn't be what was best for the the story, which has to lead somewhere. I wish a lot of horror filmmakers would take that to heart.

!SRELIOPS


Well, this being late means that I'm skipping the "where I'll be" for Monday and Tuesday and just saying I'll hit A Christmas Horror Story at 7:30 and then likely try in vain to get into Attack on Titan with my pass afterward. Deathgasm, Assassination Classroom, and Cop Car are all good fun if you want one last bit of Fantasia yourself.


Khalil Gibran's The Prophet

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 2 August 2015 in the Theatre Hall Concordia (Fantasia International Film Festival: AXIS, DCP)

Khlail Gibran's The Prophet is a labor of love for producer Salma Hayek, and like a fair number of those projects, it's got some rough edges as the desire to realize a complicated project within a window of opportunity may have taken priority over waiting until it could be perfect. Or maybe not; the production may have been perfectly smooth, and some spots are certainly excellent enough to justify the enthusiasm for the film.

The main story is okay. It introduces a trouble-making little girl, Almitra, who has squawked to a seagull but not spoken to anybody else since her father died two years ago. When her mother Kamila (voice of Salma Hayek) is not trying to wrangle her, she's the housekeeper for Mustafa (voice of Liam Neeson), a poet and painter who has been under house arrest for seven years. On the day Almitra follows her mother to work, a man from the government comes to tell Mustafa he is being set free and returned to his home country - although Almitra hears different.

Don't get me wrong, this framing piece isn't bad; it's got a nice voice cast with Hayek, Neeson, Quvenzhané Wallis, John Krasinski, Frank Langella, Alfred Molina, and John Rhys-Davies. The Lion King's Roger Allers directs, and while he doesn't have the same resources he did with Disney, the mostly hand-drawn images move smoothly, the storytelling is clear, and the characters expressive. When he gets to take a flight of fancy, it's neat to see, as are the humorous moments when he can stretch his cartooning muscles. Sometimes I suspect that he has a hard time connecting the heavy and heady material with an intended young audience - this is the story of a man who is a political prisoner in part for publishing philosophy, and trying to present that in a way palatable to kids Almitra's age can leave it feeling like an introductory lecture to older viewers.

Full review on EFC.

"Aubade"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 2 August 2015 in the J.A. de Seve Cinema (Fantasia International Film Festival: Outer Limits of Animation, HD)

Director Mauro Carraro credits a Mich Gerber concert as the inspiration for this short film of people emerging from a lake, a black sun casting shadows, and paper boats the size of barges, and Gerber's music on the score makes a gorgeous film even more memorable. The whole thing is arguably his introduction, and he gets something akin to a curtain call at the end.

Perhaps the most striking thing about this film, though, is what Carraro does with lighting. This film isn't quite built to look like conventional animation, but is still relatively flat, but the lighting is designed to glow, reflect off the water, and have shadows come from the sun rather than be dispelled by it. It seldom seems the primary purpose, but it's a big part of the impression the film makes.

"Be the Snow"

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 2 August 2015 in the J.A. de Seve Cinema (Fantasia International Film Festival: Outer Limits of Animation, HD)

The description of this one involves a pillow running away from home and then getting homesick, and I don't know if I necessarily got that from the storytelling, more seeing it as the pillow going out to run errands initially then wondering what the skydiving was about. It doesn't really matter, I suppose - the jokes are pretty funny and cleverly animated regardless, and the combination between live-action and the animated pillow character is impressively seamless.

It's super-cute all around, although it shows just how tricky dialogue-free filmmaking can be, especially when you're also relying on FX shots that probably have to be rationed pretty tightly. Not that I'd want this short done any other way, especially since it's quite possible I missed a cue or two at the start. And, hey, any film with a credit for "...as blonde cheating cat" at least has that going for it

"Poussières d'étoiles"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 2 August 2015 in the J.A. de Seve Cinema (Fantasia International Film Festival: Outer Limits of Animation, HD)

One minute long, but it has some impressive animation. Most impressively, it seems to tell a clear emotional story - a young person going through cancer treatment and being comforted by his teddy bear - without ever spelling it out. Director Gabrielle Le Blanc may be just out of school, but she may have a bright future with this as her calling card.

"Timber"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 2 August 2015 in the J.A. de Seve Cinema (Fantasia International Film Festival: Outer Limits of Animation, HD)

"Timber" starts out feeling kind of clever, with anthropomorphic logs from sticks to stumps shivering in the midst of a forest that has been clear-cut, and the pairing we get initially - an enthusiastic young twig and a weathered trunk segment - immediately work as characters. The hint of fear they show when the campfire is first lit is a tease, but then things get crazy.

What comes after that is mean cartooning only partially ameliorated by the cute designs, working in large part because it does get at an underlying truth, that it can be far easier for the poor to turn on each other than the people actually responsible for their situation. It's an even sharper barb that the short started out with, making it even more memorable.

"A Free Lunch"

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 2 August 2015 in the J.A. de Seve Cinema (Fantasia International Film Festival: Outer Limits of Animation, HD)

One of two shorts in the program inspired by the same school assignment, and I think my perception of it may have been skewed by hearing as much, and that it was about a guy who finds an apple, though told via ink blots and sound effects. It works well enough, but I wonder if I would have found the apple munching just random sounds otherwise.

"Poussières d'étoiles"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 2 August 2015 in the J.A. de Seve Cinema (Fantasia International Film Festival: Outer Limits of Animation, HD)

Not a whole lot to say about this one. It's two minutes of multicolored grains that form images, and I dig it in the same way I really like the work of PES. There's also a context to it that kind of got buried for me in the middle of a 90-minute program

"Junk Girl"

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 2 August 2015 in the J.A. de Seve Cinema (Fantasia International Film Festival: Outer Limits of Animation, HD)

Oh, no, now other people are explicitly making Tim Burton movies!

I kid; after all, I found myself liking this movie about a sad young woman "made of junk" who tries to scrape by in a presumably-Iranian city (the clothing matches, although the headlines in the paper are mostly Harry Potter gags) only to face disgust and occasionally violence. It's very nicely done, if a downer, with the expressiveness of the characters' faces seemingly much higher than is typical for stop-motion, or CGI made to resemble stop-motion.

"Late Night Live Jazz"

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 2 August 2015 in the J.A. de Seve Cinema (Fantasia International Film Festival: Outer Limits of Animation, HD)

A very nifty little short by Mathias Menten from Belgium, which starts with a busker getting thrown off the Metro and seeming to have nowhere to go until he finds a card from "Le Club" among his change. Maybe he should have been suspicious upon seeing that this place was located in a scary-looking castle.

Menten's got a distinctive style for animation, and the thick blacks do a neat job of conveying the shadowy environment while still the audience to see plenty of what's going on. The jazzy soundtrack is pretty nice as well, and, hey, at least the cute vampire vocalist seems fond of our hero at the end!

"Last Dance on the Main"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 2 August 2015 in the J.A. de Seve Cinema (Fantasia International Film Festival: Outer Limits of Animation, HD)

Animated documentaries are odd things, and I'm certain that I didn't get as much out of this primarily French-language one as I might have some others, but I liked it. Rather than just rotoscoping talking heads, filmmaker Aristofanis Soulikias gives this picture a cool style that suggests the shabby-but-beloved neighborhood it focuses on - although also tying in with how, at the time Hydro Quebec wanted to demolish it for a new, modern building, it had remained an artistic haven but become more upscale.

It's a nifty little film; I'd like to see it with English subtitles at some point.

"Molinari Mouvement"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 2 August 2015 in the J.A. de Seve Cinema (Fantasia International Film Festival: Outer Limits of Animation, HD)

What you get when abstract animation is inspired by abstract art: Director Alvaro Marinho takes works of Guido Molinari and sets their shapes in motion, blending it with music to create a pleasing set of images. Admittedly, I'm artistically ignorant enough that I initially thought Marinho was playing with a test pattern, but it was still nifty to watch.

"Office Paint"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 2 August 2015 in the J.A. de Seve Cinema (Fantasia International Film Festival: Outer Limits of Animation, HD)

This is the other short film that came from the same assignment as "A Free Lunch", and I liked it a bit more. Not just because I didn't have an intended plot laid out, but because director Annie Amaya seemed to let the sounds guide the animation, creating something that feels like a new way to see something familiar.

"The Mortal Flame"

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 2 August 2015 in the J.A. de Seve Cinema (Fantasia International Film Festival: Outer Limits of Animation, HD)

A nifty little adventure in which a maquette that seems to start out just wandering around an artist's studio which then becomes a larger, stranger world. The adventure itself is not that memorable - it's another one where I can kind of see what it was going for after reading the description, but not necessarily at the time. I really liked the imagery, though, especially the typewriter revealed as the snow around it thawed.

"Noir Manhattan"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 2 August 2015 in the J.A. de Seve Cinema (Fantasia International Film Festival: Outer Limits of Animation, HD)

A minute long and pretty much leading up to one joke, but I kind of love this one. Director Maude D'Amboise-Courcelles gives her short a style that's kind of film noir and kind of pin-up, depending on which of the two characters we're looking at, and I love the voice actor she found for the detective, even if I only understood bits and pieces of the untranslated French.

It hit the target, and did it well.

"Semi Sauf"

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 2 August 2015 in the J.A. de Seve Cinema (Fantasia International Film Festival: Outer Limits of Animation, HD)

Another really short one, but it gets some weird but cool cartooning in quickly, as a Frankensteined frog-mouse escapes a lab, discovers a mouse-frog, and... Well, that would be telling.

Quick, adventurous, and darkly funny. I'd like to see director Kelly Harpes do more with this world and its characters, although I'm sure whatever comes next will be worth seeing.

"Deep Space"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 2 August 2015 in the J.A. de Seve Cinema (Fantasia International Film Festival: Outer Limits of Animation, HD)

Seven minutes makes this one of the longer parts of the program, and it's also one of the most entertaining, although in pretty divergent ways. On the one hand, the art style is very cool and the music was funky in a way that complemented it perfectly. On the other hand, my notes for the film basically read "weird creatures fucking". Which, don't get me wrong, turns out to be very funny indeed, especially as the poor astronaut trying to find one form of intelligent life on this place so he can get home has to deal with a whole planet full of animals with one thing on their minds.

There were some in the audience who felt that this wore out its welcome, but seven minutes doesn't quite get it there (though the final bit is admittedly a bit tired). It's a very funny little picture, although obviously not for everyone.

"Missing One Player"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 2 August 2015 in the J.A. de Seve Cinema (Fantasia International Film Festival: Outer Limits of Animation, HD)

The latest from Chinese animator Lei Lei ("Ray Lei" in the subtitles here) is a bit more story-oriented and less abstract than some of his previous shorts, although maybe just barely so. It's got an asteroid heading toward Earth, a panicking population that has many acting out, and three people who just want to play mahjongg but need a fourth.

Like his other shorts, this looks like very little else, put together from what look like cutouts from propaganda posters and sometimes limited in small movements but with great sweep on the larger scale. The music by Stars Lee is pretty great too, making for a short that seems to pack a lot into four minutes.

"Disconnector"

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 2 August 2015 in the J.A. de Seve Cinema (Fantasia International Film Festival: Outer Limits of Animation, HD)

A very spiffy little thing by Faiyaz Jafri who did everything from music to animation, and while sometimes it's got the feel of a one-man show in that the animation is a little too smooth, it's a look that works for it: By resembling the too-slick look of dance games, it makes the link the the virtual reality harness feel more natural, making it much easier to get across how synthetic those experiences are, even if they do resemble the world outside.

It's fun to listen to, as well - the poppy music fits the story perfectly and makes the whole exciting, even if the ultimate message is that something real is certainly better.

"Oh Wal"

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 2 August 2015 in the J.A. de Seve Cinema (Fantasia International Film Festival: Outer Limits of Animation, HD)

Oooo-kay. Notes on this one: "Cat riding in [fake] fish's mouth. Kills land whale w/ sushi kingdom".

It's certainly a trippy little short, though, kind of enhanced by looking like an "Itchy & Scratchy" cartoon from The Simpsons in spots. Only in spots, though, as this is very much its own thing that goes in its own weird, surreal directions. It is, sometimes, kind of weird for the sake of being weird, but it pulls the audience along with its strange internal logic and cute-but-violent world.

Experimenter

* * * (out of four)
Seen 2 August 2015 in Theatre Hall Concordia (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

I really hope that this one opens in Boston soon, because I'd like to give it a second look. I came out of it with an odd sort of ambivalence, liking almost all of what it did but feeling like there should have been more heft, especially with all the unusual techniques writer/director Michael Almereyda was using to make sure the audience was paying a little more attention. That's kind of unfair, though - isn't one of the things that usually makes biopics kind of eye-rolling the attempt to make a person's individual life a symbol of something else?

Indeed, in some ways I think that Almereyda is explicitly trying to buck this trend with Experimenter, even as he does look to make a point: It spends a lot of time focusing on the work of Stanley Milgram, detailing experiments well beyond the (in)famous "teacher/learner" experiment and pointedly mentioning that he wished he could be remembered for the quality and results of his work rather than the vaguely uncomfortable feelings it inspired in people who had not actually read it. It's paradoxical - it's about trying to take the simple emotional reaction out of an assessment of someone's life and how people behave, but in doing so it lacks the sharpness to puncture those preconceptions.

Maybe it works once given a chance to roll over in my head and recognize that I'm doing something I don't really want to do in judging this on first impressions. I'd kind of like another chance, because it's a really nifty fourth-wall-breaking, stylish-but-understated movie otherwise.

Full review on EFC.

Ninja the Monster

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 2 August 2015 in Theatre Hall Concordia (Fantasia International Film Festival, HD)

Director Ken Ochiai was unusually candid in his Q&A after this film, and one of the things he mentioned was that Japanese movies like Ninja the Monster are made with more than an eye toward the foreign market, opening on maybe five screens back home and hoping to make more money on home video elsewhere, and one can feel it straining for accessibility and against budget.

It looks and feels very flat - not bad, per se, just a bit underpopulated in some areas and with Aoi Morikawa putting in performances that feels muted as the Princess and many of the others in the cast seeming to be very one-note without regard to what's going on with the other actors or elsewhere in the movie. The camera is pointed at beautiful things when they're outside, and the sets and costumes are fine, if kind of off-the-rack, but there's very little that's distinctive.

On the plus side, the monsters are pretty great when we get a look at them, although it limits the action to something more FX-based than the actual swordfights you might want from a movie featuring samurai and ninjas. On the other hand, Ochiai does a fine job of making a horror/monster movie, with some cool moments and interesting designs. It just can't help feeling like such a targeted product in some ways, rather than a movie someone wanted to make.

Full review on EFC.

"The Strange Lives of the Not So Destined"

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 2 August 2015 in the J.A. de Seve Cinema (Fantasia International Film Festival, HD)

I was caught up in "The Strange Lives of the Not So Destined" (which I don't think ever had such a memorable title on-screen) enough while watching it that it's a bit of a surprise that, writing three days later, I have a bit of trouble remembering what the thrust of it was. It gets some good humor and anguish out of a man (Adam Busch) who, on a lark, goes in to talk to a palm reader (Ashley Donigan) who knows everything, but what are we supposed to get out of it?

Understand, it's a kind of pleasant surprise that it doesn't lead to them pairing off, although their mindsets are too negative at the time for that to really be entertaining. It doesn't really get into what it must be like for her to know everything and see the Universe as completely deterministic, or him trying to fight his destiny, or maybe she's working with his disbelief to set him down a different path. Instead, things kind of seem to peter out without really saying anything.

They Look Like People

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 2 August 2015 in the J.A. de Seve Cinema (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

It feels a bit spoilery to say that They Look Like People is seldom the movie it's expected to be from the description, which talks about how Wyatt (MacLeod Andrews) can see that most of the people around him are being taken over by aliens or demons or the like and is torn about recruiting his friend Christian (Evan Dumouchel) to the cause of stopping them. They don't hide that it's a "he might be crazy" movie, but the truth is, if you'll pardon the grammatical sin, "might" is pretty much superfluous in that description.

The neat thing is, filmmaker Perry Blackshear doesn't really try to play into the possibility that genre film fans might be so used to how these things play out - ambiguously-to-"he's right!", or with obliviousness leading to tragedy - that going a different direction might be a shock. From the very start, it's pretty clear where things stand, and rather than being tragic, there's a great deal of hope to the film, because Wyatt doesn't want to be that way, even if Blackshear and MacLeod do a really fantastic job of presenting just how convincing his delusions are.

A large part of the success may be down to how, while it's Wyatt's delusions that drive the film, it often feels much more like a small ensemble piece. Evan Dumouchel's Christian has his own thing going on that could spin off into a movie itself, and Margaret Ying Drake is a lot of fun as his potential girlfriend (also his boss, promoted over him). They are an entertaining group as opposed to just "normal" people, and that both means that we're able to take occasional breaks from building his world and that he's got a good place to come back to, if it goes that way.

Full review on EFC.

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